Sabotage, reasons of state, and the ordinary citizen

Nordstream 1 and 2 were rendered unusable for years on two consecutive days with the help of powerful explosive devices. According to a usually well-informed expert from CCTV-4 (the Chinese state television), the force released on this occasion was equivalent to at least two tons of TNT. The explosion was so powerful that it caused seismographs in Denmark and Sweden to tremble.

It appears that at least three countries have a direct interest in a permanent and, if possible, final interruption of the gas transports via both pipelines, even though the gas supply via Nordstream 1 had meanwhile already been reduced to zero. But the German business community was just putting massive pressure on politicians to put Nordstream 2 into operation after all, otherwise the outsourcing of large German corporations to the US and progressive overall deindustrialization would be inevitable. Voices from the SPD have also been heard along these lines. They were thinking not only of industry but also of ordinary citizens.

Who are the states that have a direct interest in cutting the direct energy route between Germany and Russia? First and foremost, of course, Ukraine, as the huge revenues Russia earns from gas deliveries keep Putin’s war machine running, costing hundreds of lives every day. In addition, the direct route omits the previously used transit through Ukraine, which significantly reduces one of the country’s most important sources of revenue. For the same reason Poland too strongly objected to the construction of both pipelines. Warsaw has an existential interest in bringing Ukraine into the Western camp – the threat from Russia being thereby shifted several hundred kilometers to the east. Both countries, Ukraine and Poland, cannot but welcome the destruction of the two Nordstream pipelines.

But were they in any way capable of taking an active role? The area of the Baltic Sea around the island of Bornholm is one of the regions best monitored by NATO. No Russian submarine has any chance of getting into this area unnoticed. Ukraine does not have access to the Baltic Sea; Poland does, but it would irreparably damage its reputation in the EU and its relationship with Germany if this act of sabotage could be proven against it.

That leaves one more suspect, a close and indispensable European ally, the United States of America. They are not only interested in stopping gas supplies via Nord Stream, but also in ending all Russian gas supplies to Germany and the European Union. This interest can be justified in several ways. On the one hand, they find it increasingly hard to accept that they are spending billions of dollars to support Ukraine, while the EU, conversely, is supporting the Russian war machine with even more billions of dollars. Gas supplies through Nordstream 1 had already ended on the Russian side, but their resumption through Nordstream 2 was offered by Putin in July. “We still have a ready route – that’s Nord Stream 2.” As already mentioned, this offer coincides with a corresponding and growing demand from German industry, politicians, and ordinary citizens. It could therefore by no means be ruled out that there would again be a direct gas supply from Russia – now using Nord Stream 2 instead of 1. Of course, in addition to the strategic interest for the U.S., there is a further economic one. If Germany can no longer supply itself with (once) cheap Russian gas, it will have to rely to a large extent on American supplies of liquefied gas.

As is well known, the Nordstream pipelines were already a thorn in Donald Trump’s side. He had put Angela Merkel under considerable pressure to do without them. Nor did Joe Biden agree. Shortly before the war began, he said at a joint press conference with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz in the White House: “If Russia invades Ukraine, then there will no longer be a Nord Stream 2. We will bring an end to it.” When a reporter asked how that was possible, given that the project was under German control, Biden is said to have added. “I promise you, we’ll be able to do it.” This announcement, unmistakable in its outspokenness, probably just “happened” to the sometimes carelessly honest President Joe Biden. It was certainly not coordinated with other government agencies; apparently Biden was not aware that the CIA, in order to dismiss any possible charges against the U.S. from the outset, had warned the Federal Republic of a possible attack.

The U.S. is the only power that can carry out such an attack not only technically at any time, but also in such a way that its implementers remain undetected. Within the framework of NATO, the Americans are constantly conducting reconnaissance flights in the Bornholm area. Yesterday, on Chinese state television, in the program “Jinri guanzhu”, direct reference was made to certain flights with the designation “FFAB123”. The Chinese seem to think that the destruction of the two pipelines by the Americans is an assured fact. The former Polish foreign minister and current EU parliamentarian Radek Sikorski obviously agrees. In a twitter note (“Thank you, USA”) he expressed his gratitude. Of course, this is no more than a personal conviction, but it confirms the assumption that the sabotage is at least as convenient to the US as it is to Ukraine and Poland 

As for Russia, the Putin regime does not shy away from the wildest lies, but in this exceptional case the Russians seem to be above suspicion. Destruction of their own capital seems as unlikely as a cut into their own flesh. Nor would it be compatible with Putin’s and German industrialists’ willingness to resume gas deliveries through Nordstream 2. After all, it is a sad but indisputable fact that the European Union provides Vladimir Putin with the money he needs to continue his murder in Ukraine. If one considers it possible that Putin allowed this sabotage to be carried out, though it radically contradicts his own interests, then we might as well believe that it was commanded by the German chancellor.

Now, as a German, I feel at the first moment outraged that Europe’s closest ally should even be considered as a possible perpetrator, and that no less a person than the American president could even consider this possibility. If, however, I were an American, I would certainly think differently. The American national economy is pumping billions of dollars into Europe to prevent Russia from “denazifying” first Ukraine and then other parts of Europe, with the intention of gradually reversing the collapse of the Soviet Union – in Putin’s words, “the greatest catastrophe of the twentieth century.” By contrast, Germany, as already noted, is pumping even more money into Russia in the opposite direction, thus actively promoting Putin’s very project.

To a certain extent, it is undoubtedly true what Russian citizens are told every day by state propaganda. The Germans and all other Europeans have become vassals of the United States. If it is true that the U.S. is indeed responsible for the sabotage of the Baltic Sea pipelines, then this view would become even more obvious. My indignation nevertheless remains moderate – just as the outrage over the spying on the German Chancellor via her cell phone did not leave a lasting imprint on the German public. As a region dependent on foreign energy supplies, Europe is too weak politically, economically and militarily to assert its independence against the two nuclear superpowers Russia (with its ally China) and the US. Since we are dependent on external energy supplies, we have no choice but to join one of the two camps.

And here my choice is quite definite. The defense of Europe against Russian totalitarianism during the Cold War had already made the old continent dependent on its big American brother – we were vassals from the Russian perspective – but Germany flourished under this vassalage, while in the Russian-occupied eastern states vassalage verged on slavery while poverty fed the readiness to revolt. This explains why none of the former Eastern bloc states would want to exchange their membership in the European Union for the former or a future Russian yoke – certainly not after Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. We know how the new tsar treats his own – closely related – brothers; as an avid listener, I know from personal experience how fantasies of destruction are aroused in the Russian media day after day (even in a once intellectually sophisticated program like “Bolshaya Igra” – The Great Game). Of course, it would be a crime on our part to equate the Russians and their past with the current criminal regime. But the Putin system currently poses the greatest threat to Europe – and Europe alone is simply incapable of warding off that danger. Viewed in this light, it would not be surprising that the U.S. would exact a price for preventing Putin’s further advance in the interest of reasons of state.

Europe on Probation

The war was prepared long in advance. At the latest since 2005, when Vladimir Putin described the disintegration of the Soviet Union as the “greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century,” he was anxious to reverse what he saw as a disastrous development. Europe was not prepared for Putin’s war – least of all were the many Putin friends and supporters who, even in the weeks before February 24, 2022, when the new tsar deployed his troops on the border with Ukraine in Bjeloruss, trusted Russian propaganda, which claimed to the last that Russia was after all only engaged in harmless exercises – everything else the regime dismissed as Russophobic propaganda. But the U.S. government knew better: such a deployment always means war. It was also clear to the Americans that the West would have to act if Putin was to be prevented from revising history by means of conquest. But how? NATO deployment on the side of Ukraine was out of the question – that would have meant all-out war, including the nuclear holocaust. But if we did not want to stand idly by – just as the world had accepted Hitler’s lust for conquest until his invasion of Poland – then there was nothing left but an economic blockade (extended by measures against Putins personal collaborators) – i.e. a course of action commonly called “sanctions”.

War – especially in its modern form – is an orgy of destruction of land and people. Sanctions destroy “only” parts of the country, especially the economy. But they have always been a double-edged sword. You can’t tear apart established economic ties and dependencies without also doing considerable damage to yourself. For some time now, the right-wing camp of Marine Le Pen in France, Herbert Kickl in Austria, Matteo Salvini in Italy and, of course, Viktor Orban in Hungary have been voicing vehement protests against those “nonsensical sanctions”. While in our country the prices for energy and basic foodstuffs are skyrocketing and the lack of energy is threatening to bring German industry to its knees resulting in mass unemployment, in Moscow there seems to be hardly any notice of restrictions yet.

What is true is that the West’s sanctions policy has exposed its own economy to the most severe shock since World War II. Replacing fossil fuels with renewables has been on the green agenda for some time since it is the only way we may limit the effects of climate change – but this process takes time: at least two, if not three decades. Now, however, the extrication from Russian energy dependence is taking place overnight, especially since the Russian president sees the interruption of gas supplies as a welcome opportunity to take revenge for the sanctions.

Does this mean the sanctions are wrong because the West is suffering too? No! Apart from open war – a murderous option for all concerned – sanctions are the only means to curb Putin’s expansionist desires. Orban, Le Pen and colleagues hope to ingratiate themselves with the Russian czar and save their own skins. But Neville Chamberlain already failed with this policy vis-à-vis Hitler. In the end, appeasement invariably affects those too who want to ensure for themselves temporary gains.

However, sanctions may or may not be effective. We can speak of effectiveness only if they affect the Russian economy to such an extent that Putin can no longer wage his war because the population starts rebelling. For the time being, this does not seem to happen. To be sure, exports of high technology have been severely curtailed, so the Russian arms industry will soon no longer be capable of producing its high-tech weapons – but this effect will take some time. Conversely, the reduction in gas and oil exports to Europe actually provides Russia with significant benefits as prices for these goods are skyrocketing. Thus, Russian revenues for its greatly reduced energy exports have even increased. So far, the criticism of sanctions is true.

Economic blockade would, however, be really painful if Russia had to forego all or most income from its raw materials exports – as is well known, these account for a full forty percent of the Russian state budget. Since Europe is by far the most important importer of Russian fossil energy, a complete renunciation on our part would entail the collapse of the Russian state budget (because China and India cannot replace the shortfall, at least in the near future). Even under such conditions, the Russians will continue to survive – they often demonstrated their extraordinary stamina in emergency situations – but they will certainly no longer be able to wage a war of expansion.

But Europe too will be hit very hard. In the absence of renewable sources, the fossil supply from non-Russian countries is currently not sufficient to prevent an at least partial collapse of European, and especially German, industries. The transition to a green economy is possible in the long term but being suddenly forced upon us, it threatens us with deindustrialization and the dismantling of our accustomed standard of living – not to mention the ensuing social consequences.

This is the hour when Europe either fails or proves itself. Right-wing outsiders like Le Pen, Kickl, Salvini, Orban, etc. want to pursue their policy of appeasement for and in the interest of Putin – a policy that would not only weaken the Union but disolve it for good (while additionally inciting Putin’s expansionist desires through their compliance). In contrast, the European Commission represents the interests of the whole of Europe against national egoisms. The simplest option, a ban on all imports of raw materials from Russia, is out of the question because it would pose an existential threat to the standard of living all over Europe. On the other hand, Europe can certainly prevent Russia from becoming a beneficiary instead of a victim when sanctions lead to higher prices for oil and gas. A cap on the prices of fossil raw materials is an excellent instrument. After all, the buyers of a commodity can form a cartel just as the sellers have done for decades. Russia has agreed with OPEC to cap production in order to stabilize prices at high levels. After it cut its supplies, prices then skyrocketed. If Europe joins forces with the G7, the leading Western industrial nations, to form a buyers’ cartel, this would be the only way to counteract an excessive price development. Europe would agree to pay Russia a price close to or marginally above the producer price.

Of course, even this approach is not without risk, because Russia does not need to deliver; it could well reduce all exports to Europe to zero. Government spokesman Peskov and Dmitry Medvedev, once a sympathetic prime minister who has turned into Russia’s worst of warmongers, have made that very threat since they know what the European move means for Russia. As already mentioned, it would unhinge the Russian state budget together with Putin’s regime. The payment of pensions and a host of other state services would no longer be guaranteed. The proposed total shutdown of all supplies – already largely realized today, but hardly noticeable for Russia due to exorbitant prices – would be quite possible for the time being, but it could only be sustained for a short while without bankrupting the Russian and causing a system change. It goes without saying that the European Union must demonstrate its solidarity with nation states that are more dependent on gas supplies, such as Austria or the Czech Republic, by temporarily distributing the available gas among all its members.

Cartels of buyers against cartels of sellers have a long history at the national level. Large retail chains in all modern states ensure that producers of basic foodstuffs cannot demand regional monopoly prices. On behalf of consumers, i.e., on behalf of all of us, they buy cheaply across regions, thereby preventing price excesses on the part of sellers (although in their turn they often go too far by minimizing the earnings particularly of small producers).

But price caps carried out by individual states in the interest of their citizens by limiting the cost of energy – especially electricity or gas – are quite different. The individual state has three possible instruments at its disposal: redistribution, public debt or money creation. In the case of redistribution, tax money collected by the state from all citizens is used to help the poorer part of the population in emergency situations. The same goal is targeted with public debt, except that in this case redistribution is spread over time: the coming generation pays for the current one (although it is usually the poorer part of the population whose taxes are used to service the loans of the rich).  Money creation by the government (if allowed by existing laws) is the worst of all possibilities. By turning on the printing press, the state helps the poor in the first moment, but the resulting inflation then drives up all prices in the next moment cancelling all previous results. Redistribution is the instrument of choice. It sometimes becomes indispensable for alleviating acute need, but it has its limits, because the government can only redistribute resources actually at its disposal. At present, the pandemic has already brought European governments to the limits of their financial capacity.

And what about the enormous and unjustified profits that some energy producers have made without increasing their own output or costs? Doesn’t this show the whole misery of modern capitalism?

As so often, the popular outrage is based on a misunderstanding. Until recently, i.e. until today’s energy crisis, the regulation that the most expensive energy producer determines the price for all was a sensible and even a downright necessary provision. Those who produced cheaply were rewarded. They could use the extra profit to increase their own production and thus squeeze out the more expensive producers – a huge incentive to invest in wind turbines and solar panels. Siphoning off this extra profit for the purpose of redistribution at a time of immediate energy shortage makes sense if governments want to alleviate immediate need, but the consequence is, of course, that they block investment in cheaper sources of energy.

Here we are talking about national measures within the competence of individual governments. But the acid test required of the European Commission is its joint action against Russian price gouging. The buyers’ cartel and a price cap on Russian energy is the order of the day. Obviously, we are witnessing the end of an era, because the credo that the market regulates everything is being dramatically undermined. First Putin intervened in the market to weaken and divide Europe. Now the European Union, for its part, is forced to regulate the market. It remains to be seen whether the European Commission is up to this vital task.

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Volodymyr Zelensky: The dismantling of a Hero

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Continue reading Volodymyr Zelensky: The dismantling of a Hero

Europe – Island of Pacifism?

This question is no longer discussed only behind closed doors. CDU politician and former environment minister Norbert Röttgen made the following statement in an interview with Der Spiegel: 

SPIEGEL: You write in your book that for Europe it is a matter of “to be or not to be.” A bit pathetic, isn’t it? Röttgen: No, it’s the naked truth. We have outsourced energy to Russia, the growth markets to China, security comes from the USA. At the same time, climate change and migration pose enormous challenges. Now we’re adding war to the mix. What is at stake is safeguarding our European way of life. If we do not defend it, it will not survive (Der Spiegel 21/2022).

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Friends and Foes – German (Self)Righteousness

It happens that sharp-eyed psychologists are amazed at how similar people, e.g. men and women, can become when they are together for years, e.g. in a marriage. Malicious voices even claim that such similarity may frequently be observed between a dog and its master (mistress). Both then seems to become each others strange counterfeits. We need not find this surprising: a close coexistence inevitably leads to an alignment of habits, views, preferences, and antipathies – otherwise a close coexistence would not come about in the first place. Continue reading Friends and Foes – German (Self)Righteousness

The Virus in our Heads

Almost daily I watch one or the other transmission of the Russian-speaking channel 1TVRUS, because I want to know about the mood of our largest neighbor. The English-language programs of RT (Russia Today) are less informative in this respect, because they are geared towards Western expectations. “Vremja pokazhet” (Time will tell) is aimed at a Russian audience. It’s a talk show that’s louder and wilder than any other I know. Regularly discussants shout down each other, as if the volume of their voices were decisive for the quality of opinions.

Continue reading The Virus in our Heads